Beware of Legislative Moves Over The Gulf Oil Spill

Last week,  U.S. House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers, Jr. (D-Mich.) and Congressman Charlie Melancon (D-LA) introduced H.R. 5503, the “Securing Protections for the Injured from Limitations on Liability Act” (SPILL Act).  This is one of many pending and promised bills addressing legal liability issues arising from the Gulf Coast oil spill, including amendments to the Death on the High Seas Act.

Specifically, H.R. 5503 would:

• Amend the Death on the High Seas Act to permit recovery of non-pecuniary damages (e.g., pain and suffering and loss of care, comfort, and companionship) by the decedent’s family, as well as standardizing the geographic threshold for its application, and permitting surviving family members to bring suit directly rather than through a personal representative.

• Amend the Jones Act to permit recovery of non-pecuniary damages by the families of seamen who are killed.

• Repeal the Limitation on Liability Act to the extent it limits the liability of vessel owners to the value of the vessel and its cargo.

• Amend bankruptcy rules to prevent corporations allegedly responsible for damages under the Oil Pollution Act from certain moves seeking to sever their assets from the legal liabilities.

The bill is supposed to be in response to the Gulf Oil Spill. However, many of its provisions are not limited to the subject matter of oil spills.  For example, Section 5 proposes to amend the Class Action Fairness Act  to exclude from its reach any action brought by a State or subdivision of a State on behalf of its citizens.  Such a provision could have significant effect on CAFA, far beyond the oil spill litigation. For example, it might impact cases like State ex rel. McGraw v. Comcast Corp., 2010 WL 1257639 (E.D. Pa. Mar. 31, 2010). In that case, the state of West Virginia, in its capacity as parens patriae, filed an action in state court alleging that a cable company's requirements concerning cable boxes constituted impermissible tying behavior, in violation of state antitrust and consumer protection laws. On removal, the federal court held that the action was a “class action” under the Class Action Fairness Act, under which the definition of a class action must be “interpreted liberally.”

The bill has been referred to the following committees: House Judiciary, Subcommittee on House Transportation and Infrastructure, Subcommittee on House Transportation and Infrastructure, Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation.

Earlier this month, the House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations held a field hearing In Louisiana on the local impact of the Gulf oil spill.The House Subcommittee heard testimony from experts on the environment and wildlife, some of whom who warned that the full effects of the spill will not be known until the flow of oil is stopped.  But the most emotional testimony came from two widows, whose husbands died when the Deepwater Horizon Rig exploded in April. The widows urged Congress to reform the Death on the High Seas Act, but also noted that they fully support offshore drilling as essential to our nation's economy.

 

UPDATE: the House Judiciary Committee approved H.R. 5503, Securing Protections for the Injured from Limitations on Liability Act (SPILL Act), by a roll call vote of 16-11, with two Republicans, Reps. Lungren (R-Calif.) and Rooney (R-Fla.), joining the rest of the Democratic committee members in voting in favor.